Cultural Adaptations in the DSM-5: Insert Foot in Mouth Here

Sometimes it just seems easier to be snarky than balanced. This basic truth comes to mind because of a recent analysis I did of the Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) from the DSM-5. As I read about the CFI and looked through its Introduction and 16 questions for “patients,” I kept thinking to myself things like,

“Seriously . . . could this really be the best cultural sensitivity that the American Psychiatric Association can manage when it comes to guidelines for interviewing minority cultures?”


“Who wrote this and why didn’t they ask me for some help?” (insert smiley face here; please note that some of my colleagues at the University of Montana have noticed—and commented—on the fact that I tend to insert a smiley face icon right after texting or emailing my personal version of punchy, snarky, sarcasm).

Ha! is all I have to say to them (FYI: Ha! is my programmed default back up to my default smiley face snark signal).

Anyway . . . the point! It’s way easier for me to be critical of the American Psychiatric Association than balanced. In truth, the CFI is a reasonable effort. And, if you think about where the APA is coming from (and likely going to) then the CFI is a massive effort. I should be saying, “Cool! I’m so excited to see the CFI as part of the DSM-5.

All this is prologue for the excerpt I include below. This is an excerpt from a draft chapter I’m writing for the Handbook of Clinical Psychology . . . to be published at some point in the not too distant future. Here’s the excerpt; it focuses on cultural adaptations we can make when conducting initial clinical interviews with minority clients; forgive the roughness of the draft.

Cultural Adaptations

A clinical interview is a first impression, and first impressions are powerful influences on later relational interactions, which is why we need to make cultural adaptations when conducting clinical interviews. One of the best sources for cultural adaptations is the already-existing guidance from psychotherapy research on working multiculturally. These guidelines include: (a) using small talk and self-disclosure with some cultural groups, (b) when feasible, conducting initial interviews in the patient’s native language, (c) seeking professional consultations with professionals familiar with the patient’s culture; (d) avoiding the use of interpreters except in emergency situations; (e) providing services (e.g., childcare) that help increase patient retention, (f) oral administration of written materials to patients with limited literacy, (g) having awareness and sensitivity to client age and acculturation, (h) aligning assessment and treatment goals with client culturally-informed expectations and values, (i) regularly soliciting feedback regarding progress and client expectations and responding immediately to client feedback, and (j) explicitly incorporating cultural content and cultural values into the interview, especially with patients not acculturated to the dominant culture (see Griner & Smith, 2006; Hays, 2008; Smith, Rodriguez, & Bernal, 2011).

Cultural awareness, cross cultural sensitivity, and making cultural adaptations are especially important to assessment and diagnosis. This is partly because mental health professionals have a long history of inappropriately or inaccurately assigning psychiatric diagnoses to cultural minority groups (Paniagua, 2014). To address this challenge, in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2014), a Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) protocol is included to aid the diagnostic interview process.

The CFI is a highly structured brief interview. It is not a method for assigning clinical diagnoses; instead, its purpose is to function as a supplementary interview that enhances the clinician’s understanding of potential cultural factors. It also may aid in the diagnostic decision-making process. The CFI includes an introduction and four sections (composed of 16 specific questions). The four sections include:

1. Cultural definition of the problem
2. Cultural perceptions of cause, context, and support
3. Cultural factors affecting self-coping and past help seeking
4. Cultural factors affecting current help seeking

Questions from each section are worded in ways to help clinicians gently explore cultural dimensions of their clients’ problems. Question 2 is a good representation: “Sometimes people have different ways of describing their problem to their family, friends, or others in their community. How would you describe your problem to them?” (American Psychiatric Association, 2014).

Clinicians are encouraged to use the CFI in research and clinical settings. There is also a mechanism for users to provide the American Psychiatric Association with feedback on the CFI’s utility. It may be reproduced for research and clinical work without permission, which is a cool thing.

If you Google: “Cultural Formulation Interview” the first non-advertised hit should be a .pdf of the CFI.

If you Google: “Clinical Interviewing” the first several hits will take you to some form or another of our text on the topic.

Here’s a photo of me “working” inter-culturally with my brother-in-law (insert smiley face here):





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